Capitalism In Crisis or Without End: “What’s Left?” September 2017, MRR #412

This is the conclusion to my overlong analysis last column of the crisis of the Left and the crisis on the Right (Party like it’s the 1960s: “What’s Left?” July 2017, MRR #410).

Our story so far:

Interregnums are instances of revolutionary class conflict, either regional and diffuse (Great Peasants’ War, 1524-25; English Glorious Revolution, 1688) or more consolidated and national (French 1789 Revolution, Russian 1917 Revolution, Spanish 1936-39 civil war). Related regional interregnums were strung together into a broad, territorial interregnum (religious conflicts/wars across continental Europe, 1517-1648), while associated national interregnums were linked into a global interregnum (WWI through WWII, 1914-1945).

The French 1789 Revolution gave rise to our modern Left-Right political landscape and modernity itself. The Right is both a revolt against the modern world and a reaction to the Left. In Europe, the moderate Right and reactionary Right were joined by a Fascist Right, while in the United States various radical and new Rights emerged. But in the face of international socialism and communism after WW2, an effort was made by Buckley and the National Review to define, unify, and defend an official conservative movement.

When the Left in the 1980s experienced a crisis due to the defeat of organized labor, the collapse of real existing socialist regimes, and the decline of Marxism, the Right underwent a corresponding crisis. More fractious than the Left due to its non-programmatic, non-rational nature, the Right exploded, particularly in patriot and populist terms. The secular, religious, and xenophobic Right can barely contain the proliferation of groups and ideologies, unlike the Left which neatly divides into antiauthoritarian, parliamentary, and Leninist types.

Because the Right is invariably a reaction to the Left, when things fell apart and the center on the Left could not hold, mere anarchy was loosed both on the Right and the Left. The crisis of the Left was matched by a crisis on the Right—with mindless proliferation, sectarian infighting, and growing Red/Brown crossover on the Right—which in turn marked the beginning of another global interregnum. But what is the cause of this crisis on Left and Right, and of the global interregnum? Is it the fabled Marxist final crisis of capitalism?

First, I need to backtrack.

I called myself paleo, more or less orthodox, and old school in my Marxism when it comes to class struggle, modes of production, and the origins of modernity. Yet I’m also hep, au currant, and with it when it comes to updating my Marxist political economy with a little world systems theory (Braudel, Wallerstein, Arrighi). Capitalism started to develop in embryonic form as a world system of exploitation and appropriation as early as 1450, and went through two cycles of capital accumulation (the Genoese and Dutch cycles) prior to the British cycle which acted as a context for the French 1789 Revolution and Europe’s industrial takeoff. So not only is it correct to call the English civil war (1642-51) a prequel to the bourgeois revolutions that ushered in the modern world, it’s clear that the Renaissance prefigured the Enlightenment, and that the modernity of Machiavelli and Hobbes presaged the modernity of Locke and Rousseau. The extensive trading networks, market relations, and commercial expansion of capitalism prior to 1750 did not possess capital’s “relentless and systematic development of the productive forces” that the industrialization of the British cycle initiated, as Robert Brenner and Ellen Meiksins Woods noted. Whether we call the period from 1450 to 1750 pre-capitalism or proto-capitalism or market capitalism, we need to distinguish it from modern capitalism proper after 1750. Hence the use of the French 1789 Revolution as a convenient benchmark for the advent of modern industrial capitalism, modernity, and modern Left-Right politics.

The Marxist-influenced world systems school argues that each cycle of capital accumulation responsible for the rise of the current world economy is comprised of commercial, production, and financial phases. The commercial phase is characterized by making profit from trade and commerce—simple circulation and exchange. The production phase is distinguished by making profit from the whole process of industrialization—building factories to produce commodities, hiring workers, paying them less than what the commodities are sold for, and then valorizing the resultant surplus value into capital. The final financial phase is typified by making profit from investing in everything else that makes money—trade, commerce, manufacturing, factory production, services—which is just one step removed from simple exchange and circulation once again. What is most profitable in this three-phase cycle schema is the production phase because that’s where infrastructure is produced, the working class is reproduced, and capital is fully valorized. The commercial and financial phases are merely making money off of circulating money, and the financial phase in particular is seen as capitalism in decline.

This tripartite model is problematic and weakest when it comes to the pre-industrial Genoese and Dutch cycles, and only comes into its own with the British and American cycles. What’s more, its best to take this theory as descriptive rather than prescriptive. The center for world capitalist market power shifted from Genoa, through the Netherlands and Britain, to the United States, where it is predicted to shift again, probably to Asia, since American-centered capitalism is financializing and thus in decline. But will that shift occur? Or are we in the End Time, the final crisis of capitalism?

This model works admirably well in describing what happened when American-based capitalism changed from production to finance, which can be pinned down roughly to 1973. The Keynesianism of the Kennedy/Johnson era transitioned to the neoliberalism of the Thatcher/Reagan era when the political and cultural unrest, growth in social programs and expansion of the welfare state, and strong organized labor and strong middle class of the 1960s gave way to the rollback of government regulations, the welfare state, the public realm, and unions of the 1980s. The neoliberal trend began when the rank-and-file labor rebellions and wildcat strikes of the 1970s were routed, then was formalized with the defeat of organized labor by Reagan’s breaking the PATCO unions and Thatcher’s trouncing the striking miners, and was finally enshrined with the collapse of the Soviet bloc. Marxism appears to be bankrupt. This is, of course, the beginning of my crisis of the Left and on the Right, and my global interregnum. But why did it happen?

The short, Marxist answer is that the change from Keynesianism to neoliberalism, from affluence to austerity, from production to finance, is due to a tendency for the rate of profit to fall. If I had to choose between the lively polemics and exhortations of the 1848 Manuscripts, Communist Manifesto, and Critique of the Gotha Program versus the dry scientific analysis of Capital’s three volumes, I would choose the former every time. That’s because my mathematical chops are seriously lacking, even though I think there are insights to be had in Marxist economic statistics, formulas, and models. One such outstanding Marxist economist was Henryk Grossman whose work The Law of Accumulation and Breakdown of the Capitalist System attempted to formulate mathematical laws of capital accumulation, how it operates and why it falls short. The tendency for the rate of profit to fall (mainly due to the changing organic composition of capital) can be offset by capitalism’s creative destruction (state austerity, economic depression, war).

In the grand scheme of things then, when capitalist production became less and less profitable the economy transitioned to finance capitalism. Neoliberalism as the ideology of finance capitalism is all about deregulating and financializing the economy, rolling back the welfare state, crushing organized labor, and privatizing the public realm to reverse the falling rate of profit, and as such it’s a rightwing ideology of capitalist decline and crisis. Will this be capitalism’s final crisis as originally predicted by Marx himself, or simply the shift of capitalist power in a world economy to Asia as currently predicted by world systems theory? I can’t say, since I’m being descriptive and not prescriptive. But is capitalism-without-end really possible, or are we quickly reaching the planet’s carrying capacity for cancerous economic growth? That’s a question that will have to wait for a future column.

NOTE: Financial capitalism is a whole system, to include the state and most corporations, not merely the international banking system. This must be made clear in a time of Left/Right Red/Brown crossover politics. I’m particularly leery of talk about “international bankers” or that not-so-clever portmanteau “banksters” because it so easily slips into teleological conspiracy theory and “international jewish” idiocy.

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Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum, part 1: “What’s Left?” March 2016, MRR #394

VIDAL (loftily): As far as I’m concerned, the only pro- or crypto-Nazi I can think of is yourself. Failing that—
SMITH (moderator): Let’s, let’s not call names—
VIDAL: Failing that, I can only say that—
BUCKLEY (teeth bared, snarling): Now listen, you queer, stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I’ll sock you in your goddam face, and you’ll stay plastered—

Best of Enemies (film) 2015
transcript from ABC News coverage, 8/28/68

It was a case of the seven-second delay, or lack thereof. ABC News hired William F. Buckley, Jr. and Gore Vidal to debate the 1968 presidential nominating conventions in real time on live TV as a way of classing up its coverage. The argument got heated, epithets were exchanged, and the above infamous interchange was broadcast uncensored because no profanity delay was in place.

My columns covering the current state of American electoral politics have a built-in delay, not to prevent obscenity, but as a consequence of this magazine’s print cycle. Prompted by the film Best of Enemies, I’m writing this column in December for an early January deadline in MRR #394, March 2016. I lay out the columns section, including my own, by the end of January, which is the last moment I can make changes to the text. By the time issue #394 gets into your grubby little hands, this column will be over a month out of date, and maybe closer to three. So much for up-to-the-minute electoral coverage and timely political analysis.

The seven-second delay has become ever more ubiquitous, even as the internet has done an end run around censorship in all mainstream media. By tacit agreement, every major and most minor media outlets quickly censored the broadcast, print, and digital images of the Bataclan’s blood soaked dance floor after the terrorist attack of 11-13-15. Yet it’s easy to find the original uncensored picture online. In 1968, when Buckley and Vidal exchanged their insults, they were seriously upstaged by the rancorous floor fights within the Democratic National Convention as well as the carnage of Chicago police run riot outside the Convention. ABC News allowing Buckley to drop the “q-bomb” on live TV was the least of the network’s problems, what with journalists getting beaten up by cops in the streets of Chicago and their contentious, often lurid visuals making the news on TV and in daily papers. By contrast, the well-oiled Republican National Convention earlier in August nominated Richard Nixon on a strict law-and-order platform. The GOP’s appearance of firmness, reasonableness and stability in the face of Chicago’s chaos helped earn Nixon his landslide victory.

Today, we’re faced with the reverse.

The Democratic National Convention (July 25-28) looks to be a snooze, with Hillary the foregone nominee and Bernie promising not to buck the party process. The Republican National Convention (July 18-21) has all the makings of a good old donnybrook, a full-fledged political melee, thanks to Trump’s candidacy. There’s talk of a split convention with a nasty floor fight over who to nominate. The old-white-male GOP establishment is thinking about brokering the convention, with Trump and Carson threatening to jump ship. Simply put, the Republicans are clusterfucked.

If Trump is nominated, he will lose to Hillary. Most observers agree that the Republicans will lose big time, on a par with Barry Goldwater’s landslide defeat in 1964. If Trump loses the nomination and bolts the Republican Party with an independent presidential candidacy, the GOP will split, and both the party and Trump will lose. This is the Ross Perot Third Party scenario, and it holds to a lesser degree for Carson. The only way that the Republicans have even a chance of winning against Hillary would be if Trump loses the nomination, gracefully accepts the GOP’s decision and throws his full weight behind the party’s nomination. Not fucking likely. Any way you look at it, the Republicans will be bruised and bloodied at the very least, but more likely irreparably splintered into warring factions. In turn, the GOP’s efforts to remain viable are seriously threatened because the unity and respectability of the conservative movement underlying it has completely unraveled.

Tim Yohannan marshaled MRR’s shitworkers into keeping this magazine running after he was diagnosed with terminal non-Hodgkins lymphoma. No, Tim never promised Mykel Board a columnist position in perpetuity, and yes, he wanted to give MRR to George Tabb who turned it down because he couldn’t figure out how to move the magazine to New York City. For Tim Yo, the single most important characteristic of someone capable of running MRR was being an asshole when required, with the ability to make the hard decisions—like firing columnist Jeff Bale or refusing ads from Caroline Records because of their major label involvement or even pulling out of Mordam Records because Mordam was no longer punk enough—and to take the heat for making them.

But there are assholes, and then there are assholes.

Gavin McInnis argues that “Trump is crass and rude and irrational [and an asshole], but that’s what we need. We need hate. We need fear mongering.” Trump supporters are more than willing to see the GOP crash and burn in order for Trump to win. “The Republicans are pussies,” according to McInnis, and if they can’t get behind a Trump nomination, they deserve to lose. It’s not because clowns like McIinnis have no skin in the political game as a new Canadian immigrant recently turned American citizen. Younger Republicans and youthful conservatives are simply no longer willing to abide by Buckley’s dictum to: “Nominate the most conservative candidate who is electable,” or Ronald Reagan’s 11th Commandment that: “Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican.” They’re prepared to hold onto their conservative principles and make their point come hell or high water, even if it means trashing their fellow Republicans, wrecking the GOP, and destroying the conservative movement.

In supporting a conservative asshole like Trump, a younger generation of 30-to-40-something conservatives is ignoring the legacy of yet another conservative asshole, William F. Buckley, Jr. National Review columnist Jonah Goldberg praised Buckley for employing “intellectual ruthlessness and relentless personal charm to keep that which is good about libertarianism, what we have come to call ‘social conservatism,’ and what was necessary about anti-Communism in the movement. This meant throwing friends and allies off the bus from time to time. The Randians, the Rothbardian anarchists and isolationists, the Birchers, the anti-Semites, the me-too Republicans: all of these groups in various combinations were purged from the movement and masthead, sometimes painfully, sometimes easily, but always with the ideal of keeping the cause honest and pointed north to the ideal in his compass.” (NR Online, 10-27-05) Buckley relentlessly purged the conservative movement with the excuse of ridding it of anti-Semites and wingnut conspiracy theorists. According to Paul Gottfried however, Buckley’s “victims became ‘wing nuts’ by virtue of having been purged and slandered. The purges were not a passing or merely ancillary aspect of conservatism; they were a defining characteristic of a movement, whose function was to stake out ground where the Left had been the moment before.” Gottfried calls this Buckley’s “Great Purge” in service of building, maintaining and defending a respectable “Conservatism, Inc.”

But the GOP’s many tendencies and factions were never purged and the conservative movement was never purified. After arch-conservatives took control of the 1964 Republican National Convention to nominate Goldwater for his disastrous presidential run, Goldwater’s conservative base was decimated. Moderate-to-liberal Republicans like Nixon and Rockefeller gained ascendency, but the GOP’s conservative wing did not evaporate. Instead, these conservatives went underground and grassroots, organizing from the base up until they elected Reagan in 1980 for eight years of neoliberal dominance. Moderate Republicans are now endangered, and the liberal ones extinct. Today, conservative tendencies and factions abound; not just Randians, Rothbardian anarchists and isolationists, Birchers, anti-Semites, and me-too Republicans, but also Tea Partiers and neoliberals, white nationalists and supremacists, New Rightists, AltRightists and neo-reactionaries, evangelicals, paleoconservatives, neoconservatives and social conservatives, lone wolves and conspiracy nuts, libertarians and Establishment Republicans, yada, yada, yada. Is it any wonder that Trump’s candidacy has prompted the GOP to come apart at the seams and the conservative movement to descend into internecine warfare?

Don’t get me wrong. This isn’t a bad thing, the GOP going down in flames. Hilarious, in fact. I just wish there was some equivalent, serious opposition in the Democratic Party and the wider progressive movement to the juggernaut that is Hillary, Inc. Of course, Bernie will make a valiant primary effort at the Democratic National Convention, but he will lose and just as valiantly accede to the party’s nominee. Maybe Black Lives Matter will stage some level of protest inside or outside the convention, but I don’t see mass leftie protests targeting the Democrats anytime soon. And much as I like an acrimonious, bare-knuckled, equal brawl, that’s not likely to happen either. My prediction at this point in the print cycle is that Ted Cruz will be nominated by the Republicans, but Trump will only grudgingly step aside. With the GOP at less than full strength, Hillary will win the presidency.

Great! Four more years of Republican whining and right-of-center Democratic gloating and nothing ever getting done. If the GOP survives, that is. American politics are so fucking lame and unsurprising. A Public Policy Poll recently asked: “Would you support or oppose bombing Agrabah?” Of the Republicans who responded 57% were not sure, 13% opposed it, and 30% said they supported it. When it came to Democrats 55% were not sure, 36% opposed bombing Agrabah, and 19% said they supported it. Agrabah is the mythical kingdom in the 1992 Disney movie Aladdin.

(Copy editing by K Raketz.)

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